Dec 7, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007): A-

As tremendous an act in empathy as anything Werner Herzog has ever committed to the documentary screen, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters elevates a particular niche interest - that of the hardcore videogamer - to exquisitely existential heights, carving out the determination and passion exhibited by those who are drawn to the medium of classic arcade games for purposes beyond that of mere pastime enjoyment. The film's incredibly watchable aesthetic is due in part to the subject matter, as seemingly light and breezy a topic as one could imagine in the midst of so many Inconvenient Truths and No End in Sights dominating the circuit, but more important here is the manner in which the filmmakers explore these gamers' passions as an extension of their self-defined roles in a world full of judgment and confrontation, acting not only as an incredibly humane exercise in cinema but also as an antidote to the ridicule-laden representations such persons have generally suffered on the silver screen. A single competition forms the dramatic crux of the narrative, that between the official named Gamer of the Century Billy Mitchell, world record holder for the original Donkey Kong and fierce perfectionist wary of anyone encroaching on his high scores, and the reserved, somewhat insecure Steve Wiebe, a family man from Washington determined to prove himself the best at something after suffering so many undeserving letdowns over the course of his life. The look that follows at the gamer culture may as well be an offshoot of the Corleone family: questionable high score records, allegiances to particular gamers (and stances against others), and paranoid territoriality all play a role in the unfolding events that go beyond mere scores and enter the realm of personal integrity for all those involved. Though effectively streamlined for maximized entertainment, Seth Gordon's condensation of these months-long events never takes the route of simplicity, quickly summarizing videogame history and ideology (though I suspect many of the films viewers, myself included, will already be familiar enough with the territory as to be able to enjoy the recap purely for its aesthetic virtues) before dovetailing into the techno-infused insanity of it all. Despite the fact that the central Steve vs. Billy conflict is so well rendered as to make the minor subplots feel like excess fat by comparison, The King of Kong remains a breathless act of investigation, as admirable for its craft as for its objective consideration, and one of the finest documentaries in recent years.


  1. Anonymous9:18 PM

    Why do you think this particular situation was chosen? Couldn't one interpret the movie as mocking them for the very fact that it crafts an '80s-style Rocky narrative around them, complete with music from the era, that essentially, and perhaps inadvertently, portrays them as dinosaurs who never developed beyond that zeitgeist? The movie doesn't seem terribly interested in conveying how the culture from which their obsessions sprang, and the obsession itself, has any cultural context, both in the gaming and broad cultures, instead crafting a simple good vs. evil conflict that isn't explored enough to really work as sociology or existentialism.

  2. I think the tone this particular documentary takes is made apparent in the editing, which focuses in large part on the family unit (be it related by blood or by chosen lifestyle) and the interactions therein. Gordon seems genuinely interested in the way this pastime relates to and becomes part of daily habits and rituals, and none of the interactions or interviews shown seemed to be prying for a mocking tone or attitude (similarly, I don't think The Simpsons views its infamous "Comic Book Guy" with disdain, rather as a necessary player in a larger scheme of things). That the film ultimately gravitates towards a singular, competition-centric narrative didn't seem reductive to me (just as many movies with typical storylines are microcosmic representations of loftier ideas), and the filmmakers seemed tastefully intent on looking for shades of gray that are often skimmed over. The greater themes, then, just felt implicit.

  3. I can confirm that King of Kong is the most compelling video game documentary i've ever seen (okay so it's the only video game doc. i've ever seen, but it's still good)